By Monty Franks
Globe Sports Writer
Defending regular season champion Northeastern Oklahoma A&M was picked to finish third by the coaches during the annual Southwest Junior College Football Conference meeting at the Lindale (Texas) Golf and Country Club.
“I think they were giving NEO credit for what we accomplished last year,” first-year head coach Sherard Poteete said. “Not only did we win the conference title outright, but we went on and played in a bowl game. So I’m sure that weighed heavily in their decision.
“But, as many guys as we lost (10 starters) on the offensive side of the football, it’s good that coaches are acknowledging that NEO is back and is for real. While it’s flattering that they would think that highly of us, you still got to play the games.”
Under the direction of hall of fame coach and current athletics director Dale Patterson, the Golden Norsemen completed a two-year turnaround by finishing 5-1 in the conference and 9-3 on the season in 2012. The previous year after Patterson returned to the sidelines, NEO failed to win a conference game for the first time in the 15-year history of the league.
Only one point and one first-place vote separated the top three teams in the coaches preseason poll. The Golden Norse received one No. 1 vote and 50 total points for third place after finishing ranked 13th nationally last year.
Postseason champion and No. 4-ranked Navarro and Kilgore tied for first place in the coaches preseason ranking. Both received two first-place votes and 51 total points.
Coach Brian Mayper’s Navarro Bulldogs won the postseason SWJCFC Championship with a 62-24 victory over the Golden Norsemen. Navarro defeated No. 20 Georgia Military 30-23 in the Copperas Cove Heart of Texas Bowl to finish 10-2 on the year.
Kilgore, under veteran coach J.J. Eckert, finished ranked No. 16 nationally after dropping a 47-36 decision to No. 13 Northwest Mississippi in the inaugural Brazos Valley Bowl at College Station, Texas. The Rangers posted an 8-3 overall record.
“We’re very excited about the fact that we’ll be playing on synthetic turf this year,” Poteete said at the conference meeting. “As a matter of fact they will be completing that phase in the renovation of Robertson Field in the next couple of weeks.”
Poeete pointed out that the Golden Norsemen will be very young this season with only one returning starter (left guard Derrick Crawford from Tulsa East Central) anchoring the interior line.
“We’re going to have to rely on a lot of redshirts and a couple of transfers to fill in on the offensive line,” Poteete said. “We’ll also have to use some freshmen from time to time.”
Although the Golden Norse had four returning sophomores at wide receivers, none were starters as freshmen.
“We went through the spring with four guys who saw some playing time last year, but they are being pushed real hard by some talented freshmen that came on board during July,” Poteete said. “So this will be a very competitive situation during fall preseason.”
Transfer Mitch Manley and returnees Kason Key and Tony Keifer are battling for the starting quarterback position, according to Poteete.
“We only have 10 days once we start fall camp on Aug. 10 to determine who will be our starter,” Poteete said. “So it will be interesting to see who steps up once we put the pads on.”
Poteete said he feels quite comfortable with the returning group of Sheldon Wilson, Elliott Hawkins and Eric Dockins at the running back position.
“We’ve got a lot of guys back on the defensive side of the football that were on the field quite a bit as freshmen,” Poteete said. “We’ve got four experienced defensive backs in our secondary while we think our linebacking group and defensive front will be the strength of our team.
“Because of a couple of transfers, we’re two deep along the line as well as at linebacker,” Poteete said. “We also had some freshmen come in during July that showed they could be impact players.”
Poteete also pointed out that, not only is Aug. 10 the earliest NEO has ever started preseason, but also the Aug. 22 home opener against Metropolitan State junior varsity will be the first football game played in the entire nation at the high school, junior college or university levels.